What is green chemistry in drug discovery?

A conversation with Yacoub Fall

Specialized in the use of catalysts in organic chemistry, Yacoub Fall brings several years of experience in Mauritania, France and Canada.

However, he still endeavours to incorporate new techniques into his chemistry at OmegaChem. As a Senior Research Scientist II, he does everything he can to ensure his reactions have minimal impact on the environment.

We spoke to Yacoub about green chemistry, his experience of moving to Canada and his career in drug discovery to date.


What is your professional background? How did you build a career in drug discovery?

I started my career in organic chemistry in Mauritania, that’s where I did my bachelor’s degree. Then I came to France to do a master’s degree in organic chemistry and industrial chemistry at Aix-Marseille Université.

Once I had my master’s, I was recruited by the same professor who did my master’s internship to continue my thesis. My thesis was on industrial chemistry and catalysts, the synthesis of ligands and the use of catalysts in organic chemistry. I completed the thesis in two universities, Aix-Marseille Université and Université de Rennes. 

After that, I applied to become a temporary teaching and research associate (In French: Attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche) at Université d’Orléans. This allowed me to teach students at the university while working on chemistry research with a professor. Université d’Orléans was very focused on pharmaceutical chemistry, and they are well-known for their published research in that area.

In 2010, I immigrated to Canada. However, I arrived just at the moment that the pharmaceutical industry here collapsed. There was no work in industry, so I chose to apply for a postdoc at McGill University. I worked with Professor Jean-Philippe Lumb, who was developing his chemistry on catalytic aerobic oxidation. The results we achieved there were really satisfying.

I stayed at McGill for two years, and then started looking for work in the pharmaceutical industry. First, I worked for a small CRO in Edmonton for a year. After that, I moved to Lévis and applied for a job at OmegaChem. Since I first started working here, the company has really started to grow and develop. We have a second building and started working with clients from all over the world. So, that’s how I found myself here.


It sounds like you have a lot of experience in industry and academia. What attracted you to OmegaChem?

When I first came to Canada, my English wasn’t perfect and I wanted to improve it. So, I chose to work in an anglophone environment in Edmonton. Although it helped, having to use English all the time was a challenge. So, I applied to work at OmegaChem because it was a francophone company and the chemistry OmegaChem was doing really interested me.

I’ve loved living in Lévis too. The difference between here and Montreal is huge. To come here, you really have to love nature and the environment. Sometimes, it can even be hard to convince someone to come here and leave city life behind! But once you’re here, you notice that you’re just 10 minutes away from forest. It’s magnificent and Montreal doesn’t really have that. I really like living in Lévis and being so close to nature.

Plus, the work environment at OmegaChem is really good. People from all over the world work here: Africa, Iran, India, Europe, and many other places. At the same time, OmegaChem is quite familial and “Québécois”. Everyone gets on really well with each other. I’ve been here for almost eight years and some people have even been here more than 20 years!

It’s also fantastic to work in a company where you have the opportunity to discovery molecules that could be studied in drug discovery research. Even though our role comes quite early in the process – it could take five or six years for a molecule to reach the market and synthesis can be very challenging – it’s still rewarding. There are always challenges: the chemistry that we do is very complex, and our clients expect very high standards from us. However, it’s always exciting to find a molecule that is particularly difficult to discover after trying to find it for three or four months. It’s always magnificent.


Fantastic. And what is a typical day like at OmegaChem?

I start my day every morning at 7am. At OmegaChem, we have quite a bit of flexibility and we can start earlier in the day, that gives us time to get groceries, pick up our children from school, etc.

In our lab, everyone has their own character and personality, but we always get on well and work together to solve chemistry problems. For example, I’m specialized in the development of catalysis and the synthesis of phosphorus ligands. At the same time, if I have a colleague who is specialized in sugar chemistry and I don’t have as much expertise in that area, I can count on them to help me.

Whenever possible, I always try to carry out reactions in ways that respect the environment and do not pollute. This is what we call “green chemistry”.


Could you tell us more about your vision of green chemistry? 

Green chemistry is something that people who specialize in catalysis talk a lot about. It is a way of doing chemistry that aims at protecting the environment as much as possible.

So, trying to carry out reactions in clean and green ways is always very important.

One example of green chemistry in catalysis is by using a catalyst, like palladium on support solid, that is not entirely consumed in a reaction. After the reaction, we can filter the contents and if the catalyst remains solid, we can use it for another reaction in a way that doesn’t generate waste.


That’s fascinating. How would you describe yourself as a scientist and a colleague?

I think my colleagues would say that I have a quiet strength.

The laboratory can be a stressful environment. Sometimes, a reaction might not work, a client is waiting for a result, and we need to get the product as soon as possible. However, I stay calm and I don’t let myself get sidetracked by too much stress. In the face of difficulties, I dedicate myself to finding a solution that satisfies the client. I guess that’s why my colleagues say that I have a quiet strength!


What motivates you in your work? 

Well, I didn’t choose to work in pharmaceutical chemistry by chance. I chose it because I’m passionate about medicine and discovery. What motivates me is the chance that I can contribute to the discovery of a medication or treatment that helps people.


What do you think will be the next milestone in drug discovery?

Recently, I saw an article published by researchers at the University of Texas, who developed a promising compound that can kill a range of cancer types that are currently very difficult to treat. The compound also had a notable safety profile and a high therapeutic index when tested in animal models. This could lead to new drugs that could treat these cancers that are safer and have fewer side-effects in humans. I think it’s something that is going to continue to be researched, but it’s a very promising development.

I think CROs will continue to play a big role. The big pharmaceutical and biotech companies have the material and the financing, but they will still need assistance from CROs to develop molecules. Our work in the lab is not easy. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reporting is required. CROs will be needed to develop these molecules in a timely way.


What would you say to a scientist considering applying for a job at OmegaChem? What sets it apart from other companies?

When you work at OmegaChem, you are working in a very enjoyable and pleasant environment. Just behind our building, you can see the river and sometimes people go there to fish. The life here is great, and believe it or not, winter is even more beautiful than summer!

We also get to work with people from around the world, who bring lots of diverse perspectives and ideas to our work.



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